Last month I listened to A wizard of Earthsea, The tombs of Atuan, and The farthest shore on tape during my commute to work. (The only other piece by Ursula K. Le Guin that I am familiar with is the short story “The ones who walk away from Omelas,” a sort of nightmare meditation on Utilitarian ethics.)
Because of my unfortunate attitude about “series” and “trilogies” in particular, I might never have read these on my own. I was driven largely by the fact that my library system (like most) has fewer and fewer books on audiocassettes — CDs, MP3s, and downloads dominate the library audiobook market. Someone who drives a car from 1996 with a cassette deck has to settle for what is available. I lucked out so far with good recordings of Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bellairs’ The face in the frost, and Asprin’s Another fine myth, but the fantasy audiobook selection is pretty thin on cassette. Anyway all three of the main Earthsea books were available so I listened to them, and boy am I glad I did.
The Earthsea novels are generally classed as “young adult” (or “Bildungsroman” in cataloger jargon) as they are mainly coming-of-age stories, describing some character’s growth along the border of childhood and adulthood. (Interestingly, librarians and booksellers have been noticing that “YA” or young adult books have been attracting decidedly not so young adult audiences for some time.)
The three novels all have distinct themes which readers of any age can appreciate. The first deals with a central character’s acceptance of the terrible responsibility of a wizard in Earthsea (which I suppose is a metaphor for the responsibilities of adulthood anywhere); the second is an exploration of faith and guilt — especially misplaced faith and guilt over evil committed in the name of piety; the last is a bit heavy-handed but also a powerfully wrought tale of the inevitability of death and largely interprets morality in terms of how one accepts the bald fact of death.
As is no doubt obvious from these themes, the trilogy is also a series of morality tales. What may be unexpected in a genre so heavily dominated by Christian allegory is that the tales take a very Eastern — ultimately Taoist, I’d say — perspective.
Although the books are old enough to be “classics” in the genre, I don’t want to give away too much of the plots. Though the books did not make the cut for Gygax’s “Appendix N” in the Dungeon Masters Guide (that list itself is overly fetishized anyway…), there is plenty that hits on RPG tropes and perhaps inspired some of the things in D&D: the Tombs of the second novel fits most of the tropes of a “dungeon,” being dark, labyrinthine, treasure-filled, and home to malignant forces. The third book includes a lich-like character in the form of a wizard who actively seeks to prolong his life by living on after death. There are very few monsters, but the dragons which feature the first and third book are compelling and reasonably unique. Magic items appear but do not overshadow the action, and the wizards are somewhat reluctant to use their powers — the responsible ones are, anyway.
The setting of Earthsea is uniquely interesting, as it is decidedly not the standard “Western fairy tale/Nordic” setting you find in most traditional fantasy but something else entirely. None of the cultures are thin copies of real civilizations, and the people are racially and culturally diverse to an extent I have not encountered in fantasy from the 1970s. The vast seas dividing the lands and peoples create an excellent campaign setting, as the adventurers could island-hop and be marooned, ship wrecked, etc. to keep things varied.
But I wouldn’t read these books for D&D inspiration alone. The writing is excellent; the characters are compelling. It says a lot about the writer that despite the magic, dragons, and swordsmen in her world, the books are able to focus mostly on internal conflicts rather than external battles and yet remain exciting and interesting. The writing is often achingly beautiful. As I listened to the books, I was conscious of the writer’s presumable didactic goals (this is for young adult readers after all), and I felt that there is much to appreciate both as a reader (and part of the intended audience) and as a sort of spectator on Le Guin’s effort to impart a lesson to the reader. I get a similar feeling sometimes from the better children’s books I read to my daughter, and it is a beautiful thing.